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Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk That Make "Something from Nothing"

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Julia Turshen describes dried spices as “sleeping in the cupboard,” needing a hit of hot oil to "wake up” and “make themselves known.” In her curried lentil dish from Small Victories, the spices—a mix of cumin seed, coriander, and turmeric—rouse from their slumber for a full 10 minutes, entering the pan in step one right along with the minced garlic, shallot, and ginger.

Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk
Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk

Many recipes call for “blooming” spices in oil, but few for quite this long. In a chili, braise, or other slow-cooked dish, a one- to two-minute blooming period may be fine. But in this dish, which comes together in 30 minutes, a longer period allows the spices to infuse the oil and meld into the aromatics before the liquids (a mix of equal parts coconut milk and water) enter the equation. In the end, the lentils taste vibrant, earthy, and deeply curried, with a texture resembling a thick soup or dal, the coconut milk lending body and a slight richness.


This simple method—the slow warming of spices plus a short simmer in liquid—could be used with any number of quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, bulgur, pearled farro, or wheat berries, as well as with cooked chickpeas or beans to create a comforting, satisfying stew-like dish. (Note: The amount of liquid will vary depending on the grain or legume being used.)

Make this dish when the cupboards feel bare—when you need to create, as Julia says, “something from nothing.” Its virtues could be summarized as healthful, cheap, and easy, but there are others worth highlighting:

  • Many curries or curry-like dishes call for a daunting number of ingredients, but in this one, the seasonings are minimal: a few dried spices (coriander, turmeric, and cumin seeds) and a few aromatics (ginger, garlic, shallot or onion).
  • Julia, expert recipe writer that she is, doesn’t simply say, “Salt to taste.” She specifies 2 teaspoons—so helpful!—then suggests seasoning to taste before serving. This was spot on.
Left, all of the components—and right, there they are after 10 minutes in the pot. Photos by Alexandra Stafford
  • After you dump the can of coconut milk into the pot, you use the empty can to measure an equal amount of water. How nice not to have to reach for another measure?
  • Julia offers two simple spin-offs, both of which sound appealing:

For a vegetable or chicken curry, substitute a pound of chopped vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, etc.) or cubed chicken for the lentils, then follow the recipe the same.


For a Thai-style curry, omit the cumin and add a minced chile along with the garlic and ginger. Add cilantro stems along with the coconut milk (but discard them before serving) and finish the dish with a splash of fish sauce. Serve with lime, cilantro leaves, and Sriracha.

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Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk

80c8d252 05ad 4f0a 8d87 5bbdefe65aa4  astafford Alexandra Stafford

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Serves 4
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 shallot or small onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds or ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 cup (180 g) split red lentils or other (see notes above)
  • 1 13.5-ounce (398-ml) can full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
  • kosher salt
  • Cooked basmati rice, plain yogurt, chopped fresh cilantro, and naan for serving

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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Tags: lentils, curry, julia turshen, small victories